Harlan Ellison is best known for his fantasy and SF work, but he was also responsible for The Glass Teat, a two-volume collection of columns he ran in the L.A. Free Press from about 1969 through 1972. The subject was ostensibly television; the real subject was The Tenor (read: Terror) Of The Times.
Ellison was most struck by, and disgusted with, the way TV obstinately chose to look the other way while the United States was cleaving itself in half, how TV's answer to the horrors of My Lai was The Brady Bunch and My Three Sons and Mayberry R.F.D. (kids, ask your grandparents):
While their world gets ripped along the dotted line, the average middle-class consumer-slaphappy American opts for escapist entertainment of the most vapid sort. No wonder motion pictures grow wilder and further out in subject matter: audiences are getting their fill of pap on the glass teat. No wonder such umbrage and outrage by the masscult mind at the doings of the Revolution: they sit night in and night out sucking up fantasy that tells them even hillbilly idiots with billions living in Beverly Hills, are just plain folks. No wonder the country is divided down the middle; tv mythology causes polarization.
Cut to 2016. TV is where bold and confrontational entertainment finds its seat; the movies are PG-13 innocuous, or when R-rated, merely snide and gross. I'm not sure that means we've become more willing to confront our national demons, though; when a show like 24 functions as a legitimization of torture and darker-than-black ops*, not just for the mainstream but for actual setters of policy, it's clear TV is still a mythologizer and a polarizer. The specific myths may change, but the power to mythologize remains.
It also strikes me as too easy to say how terrible TV was once upon a time and how great and bold it is now. Most of the boldness is less about mindsets or attitudes than about subject matter or explicitness. Norman Lear gave us All in the Family in 1970 or so; you need to hit up the likes of Key & Peele on Comedy Central to get anything close to the same kind of incendiary (and riotously funny) truth-telling that was routinely part of that show. (Please don't trot out South Park for this one; I felt the show's snide contrarianism was old by the time it was in its fifth season, and nothing I've seen intermittently since has disabused me of that feeling, welcome swipes at Scientology notwithstanding.)
TV is undeniably better in the artistic sense — better photographed, more elaborately plotted, more radical in its use of once-alien conceits like nonlinear storytelling or what have you. But it still serves too many of the wrong masters, and I wonder if we have discounted its inherent power to indoctrinate just because it's become that much more artful and daring.
* My point is not that intelligence work is evil. No modern society can afford to be without an intelligence apparatus. It's only in the absence of transparency and, if need be, reconciliation across administrations, that it becomes evil.
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